I’d highly recommend coming to this novel with fresh eyes (just as Klara does). If you haven’t yet read it (what are you waiting for!?) tuck this article away for later.
There’s been a lot of interest around Klara and the Sun. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s a story about Klara the Artificial Friend, a robot whose purpose in life is to look after the little girl, Josie, who buys her from the store. It’s Ishiguro’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017 and, more importantly, his first since I wrote my dissertation on him. All this to say, I was very pleased to open a copy on my birthday a couple of weeks ago (thanks Granny!)
So, does it live up to the hype?
In many ways, I think it does.
Klara and the Sun has many of the classic features of an Ishiguro novel like first person narration, a quest, mystery, and a close focus on a few relationships. It’s both an ‘easy read’ — the idea came initially from a bedtime story — and a thought-provoking one. I was captivated from the first scene, and polished it off in less than a day.
In the rest of this review I’ll explain my favourite bits of the novel, delve into the deeper questions it poses and consider how it fits with what I wrote in my dissertation three years ago.
One of the most distinctive features of many of Ishiguro’s novels is how he uses first-person narration to tell the story. His narrators are unreliable, but as a reader you cannot really tell how unreliable. He recently said in interview “I always rather like a strange narrator”, and Klara the AF fits well into his catalogue of earnest, self-consciously-uncertain characters who have told their stories to us since 1982.
Klara is, however, different to many of Ishiguro’s other creations. Rather than being haunted by the mysteries of her past, Klara, like a baby, sees everything with fresh eyes. Watching her watch the world with this learning gaze, increasing her understanding moment by moment, fragment by fragment, is captivating. This is particularly so because her world sits in the uncanny valley between life as we know it now, and the extravagances of ‘hard’ sci-fi. We recognise every aspect, down to the ‘oblongs’ Josie and her mother carry around in their pockets, and yet something is a little different, just slightly off, and we read on to discover what that is.
Klara is full of love and wonder for the world around her, and Ishiguro is wonderful at expressing Klara’s feelings. Little details abound, like how she enjoys standing by the refrigerator in the kitchen, because of its ‘comforting sound’ or how she worries about balancing giving Josie and Rick sufficient ‘privacy’ with the risk of ‘hanky panky’.
At this point you might be wondering, “Does Klara have ‘feelings’?” From the first chapter we are struck by this question. What does it mean for an AI to feel? Even if they think they do, is there something hollow if those feelings are generated not intrinsically, but by the AI copying what they’ve observed in those around them?
Looking at Klara’s titular relationship with the Sun illustrates the difficulties of answering this question and drawing a hard line between AI and humans.
Klara is dependent on the Sun both for electrical energy, but also for an almost spiritual ‘nourishment’. This is clear from the first (wonderfully cinematic) moment Josie sees Klara. Standing in the shop window, Klara says ‘I shook my head and raised my hands, palms up, to indicate the loveliness of the Sun’s nourishment falling over us.’
By contrast, when in darkness Klara becomes despondent and confused, her visual space literally fractured into boxes.
An AF would feel himself growing lethargic after a few hours away from the Sun, and start to worry there was something wrong with him, that he had some fault unique to him and that if it became known, he’d never find a home.
Only when the Sun shines brightly again is Klara able to pull herself together, recombining her broken world into a coherent picture.
Initially Klara’s reliance on the Sun seems very un-human, like a solar powered clock needing to sit on a bright windowsill. However after a moment’s thought you realise how important light is for humans, and how strongly it affects human mood. Did you know the best time to ask for a favour is when it’s sunny? On the other hand, winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are prevalent in countries further from the equator.
In other words, if Klara responds much as humans do to the Sun, and to other stimuli, her emotions and feelings motivating those responses should be seen as just as ‘real’ as those of humans. How different, really, are the mistakes Klara makes with her ‘assumptions’ and ‘estimates’ from the biases and blindspots that we all have?
In my dissertation, I responded to the Nobel Prize Committee’s statement that Ishiguro is someone “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Essentially I said that even if, in his novels, Ishiguro shows us that there is nothing fundamentally beneath our sense of connection with others or the world, that he also shows us that this doesn’t matter. In other words, even if Klara’s emotions, or the faith she puts in the healing power of the Sun, are not really ‘real’, whatever that means, this is not, fundamentally, as important as whether Josie feels loved, or that her mother has her daughter.
What Ishiguro shows us in his earlier novels is that connection, and particularly striving for connection, is at the heart of what it means to be ‘human’. It’s what makes the moment in Remains of the Day when Stevens the butler finally says “Indeed — why should I not admit it? — At that moment my heart was breaking” so climactic. The armour falls away and finally we understand why the characters behave like they do. This pattern repeats again and again in Ishiguro’s novels, from A Pale View of Hills (1982) to The Buried Giant (2015).
Klara and the Sun masterfully deconstructs the slightly woolly conception of ‘human connection’ I used to describe this impulse to bridge the gap over the emptiness of existence, or, as Klara describes it, loneliness. As I mentioned above, what does it mean to be human? In 2021 we are quite used to the idea of interacting with digital copies, truly identical examples of the original. Every song on Spotify or video on YouTube is just that. Yet most of us would, I think, feel much hesitation, as the novel’s characters do, at the idea of loving such a replica of a living thing in the same way as the ‘original’.
If it’s the same though, why would we feel this? Is there really something inside each of us which is special, and which cannot be replicated by a very clever AI? Is there something like a soul, which makes sense of human love such that there is meaning to saying “I love this person, and I don’t love, I hate, that person”? Or rather, is this intrinsic sense of the fundamental uniqueness of each living thing a relic from a more romantic age? Would we simply forget after a while that we were dealing with a copy? Perhaps we wouldn’t even notice a difference in the first place.
Klara and the Sun, typically of a work by Ishiguro, provides not one, but two, possible solutions.
On the one hand the novel suggests that relationships are sui generis. Whether Klara is able to learn Josie so closely as to ‘become’ her is the wrong question. Individuals are made up not of an essential self; rather, they are constituted through their relationships with others. These relationships, between Josie and her Mother, or Josie and Rick, are constantly morphing and evolving in ways neither predictable nor replicable; rooms within rooms within rooms as one character describes it. Contrast these with the essentially static and unchanging relationship between Klara and her Manager at the start and the end of the novel. In other words, even if Klara, the AF, were able to observe so closely that she ‘becomes’ to all intents and purposes human herself, she could not become a daughter to Josie’s mother.
On the other hand, Klara’s surely-misplaced faith in the healing power of the Sun is eventually, and magnificently, vindicated. The Sun covers Josie in ‘his special patterns’, just as he did the Beggar Man Klara saw through the window of the store, pouring his ‘special nourishment’ onto her. Simply by willing it, by hoping and believing in it, Klara has made something real happen. By conflating correlation and causation like this, Ishiguro shows that sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s underneath it all. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, why shouldn’t it be a duck?
If you made it this far, well done! What do you think of Klara and the Sun? Whether taken as a story about a sick girl and her best friend, or as a metaphor for the human condition (or indeed, both), I think there’s a lot to enjoy.
If you’re still hankering for more, may I recommend listening to Ish, as he likes to be known, in interview? There’s a plethora to choose from, but maybe start with this one and this one. If you like the deep stuff, you might enjoy his Nobel Lecture.
P.S. Ish’s daughter Naomi’s debut novel, Common Ground, has just been published, and is next on my reading list.